Rise of the Fujiwara Family

The Fujiwara family rose to power in the Heian period, securing dominion by creating marriage alliances and establishing a hereditary claim to the position of regent.

Summary of Event

The rise of the Fujiwara clan coincided with the establishment of the Heian period Heian period (794-1185). At this time in Japanese history, the Fujiwara family was one of many aristocratic clans vying for power in the newly established capital at Heian-kyō (modern-day Kyoto). Initially, the Fujiwara clan consisted of four main families, and over the next half century, the Hokke branch of the family established itself as the dominant power within the clan. [kw]Rise of the Fujiwara Family (858)
[kw]Fujiwara Family, Rise of the (858)
Fujiwara family
Regents of Japan
Japan;858: Rise of the Fujiwara Family[0980]
Government and politics;858: Rise of the Fujiwara Family[0980]
Fujiwara Yoshifusa
Fujiwara Mototsune
Oye Masahira

The family’s rise to national power began under the leadership of Fujiwara Yoshifusa Fujiwara Yoshifusa , who became great minister of state in 857. He acquired this prestigious position as the result of his marriage to the daughter of the Japanese emperor. Yoshifusa took advantage of this opportunity to establish the Fujiwara family as an up-and-coming power in the Japanese aristocracy. The following year, he had his nine-year-old grandson, Seiwa Seiwa (r. 858-876), placed on the throne and made himself regent.

Upon Yoshifusa’s death, Fujiwara Mototsune Fujiwara Mototsune assumed his role as head of the Fujiwara and became regent when the child emperor Yōzei Yōzei ascended the throne. Soon after Mototsune had secured his political power, the Japanese government experienced a grave crisis when it was discovered that the young emperor was mentally ill.

The royal family removed Yōzei from his position of leadership and placed a very old and feeble relative, Kōkō Kōkō (r. 884-887), on the throne. The new emperor had neither the strength nor the character to become a major force in Japanese politics. Mototsune took advantage of this situation and quickly became the dominant figure at the Japanese court. He instituted the position of kampaku (chancellor, or regent to an adult emperor) in 884. Because Mototsune possessed considerable talent, energy, and character, Japan prospered under his rule. When the old, feeble emperor died, he was replaced by a young and vigorous monarch, Uda Uda , who was actually the child of an aristocratic woman from the Fujiwara clan. The new emperor clashed with Mototsune and initiated a number of palace intrigues in an attempt to wrest power away from the Fujiwara family. Mototsune’s power and ability were too great; therefore the new emperor had to allow Mototsune to remain in power until his death in 891.

Mototsune’s time in power was a major turning point in the history of the Fujiwara family. To maintain his powerful position, Mototsune had to battle the royal family constantly; this helped establish the image of the Fujiwara clan as a powerful political force in the eyes of the Japanese monarchy. It also helped solidify the primacy of the Fujiwara family in the eyes of the other aristocratic clans who had been defeated by Mototsune’s great skill in the power struggles at the Japanese court.

The rise of the Fujiwara clan also coincided with the establishment of a new Japanese political philosophy that emphasized high moral character and great dedication to duty. This new political worldview is best represented in the document known as the Kampyō testament Kampyō testament[Kampyo testament] . This philosophical thesis reflected the political and cultural dominance of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907) and the Confucian ethic that dominated its government bureaucracy. To protect a bureaucrat from the perils of materialistic excess, the author of the Kampyō testament emphasized a life of following simple tastes and of dedication to duty. Although the Fujiwara clan vastly expanded its family’s wealth, the majority of its members who rose to great positions of power made their decisions according to what was in the best interest of the Japanese state. Thus, the Fujiwara ministers were perceived as outstanding examples of Kampyō era (889-897) bureaucrats.

The Fujiwara family also benefited from the fact that Japan was moving into a decentralized feudal period. During the Heian period (794-1185), the royal family was increasingly unable to control events in the nation’s countryside. The violent state of affairs in the provinces pushed the peasants into a traditional feudal existence, in which they exchanged taxes and loyalty for the protection of a powerful member of the landed gentry, the most prominent being the Fujiwara family.

The ability of the Fujiwara clan to provide this security was the result of a technological and social revolution that had taken place in the Japanese countryside. Widespread violence forced the rural aristocrats to develop their own military protection. This coincided with the introduction of new military technology from Tang China. Among the most important examples of this new technology were strong and highly accurate weapons that increased the military efficiency of both infantry and cavalry.

Many provincial aristocratic families took advantage of the new weaponry to protect themselves from the chaos of the countryside. Beginning in the ninth century, a new aristocratic military class arose in Japan that would eventually play an important role in the nation’s history. These new aristocratic warriors took the title of samurai Samurai and developed their own ethical code of conduct known as bushidō. Bushidō[Bushido] This new professional warrior class valued above all else loyalty, martial talent, and strict discipline. Failure in any of these areas meant great dishonor that could only be rectified by ritual suicide, or seppuku. This unbending code of conduct made the new class of samurai a powerful force and key element to the success of the major aristocratic families. A significant portion of the Fujiwara achievement stemmed from the fact that the vast majority of the families of this new warrior class remained loyal to the Fujiwara clan. Feudalism;Japan

The Fujiwara family used the loyalty and skill of these military families to defeat various warrior tribes that had been ravaging the provinces of northern and western Japan. The inability of the royal family to deal effectively with this problem added to the lack of confidence in the central government. Subsequently, when these rebel armies were defeated by forces loyal to the Fujiwara clan, the family’s power and prestige increased dramatically and allowed them once again to challenge the royal family for power.

In spite of the close connection between the military class and the Fujiwara clan, the family leadership always emphasized the importance of family ties as the true basis of its political power. For this reason, the leaders of the clan focused on the importance of developing and maintaining power through the marriage of their daughters to the royal household. Japanese political culture had historically linked family ties to the ability to hold high political office. Those family members who were most closely tied to the royal family were the ones who had the most opportunity to serve. This was especially true when it came to the children of those marriages. Marriage as a political tool;Japan A truly successful marriage was one that produced offspring that someday might be elevated to the office of emperor. Healthy children were so important to the success of the Fujiwara clan that on many occasions, the family would bring their expectant daughter back to the family residence in order to provide both the mother and the newborn with the best medical care. One of the great examples of the power of the Fujiwara clan was the fact that it could obtain better medical care for its women than the royal family could. The family also spared no expense in educating its children. One of the most important reasons daughters of the Fujiwara family were so successful in gaining opportunities to marry into the royal family was the fact they were among the most educated women in Japan.

At the height of the Fujiwara regency (which lasted from 886 to 1184), Japan experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity that was a combination of international and domestic factors. Internationally, the success of the Tang Dynasty helped establish a peaceful and prosperous East Asian system whereby trade in material goods and cultural ideas flowed freely. Domestically, the Fujiwara regency established an environment based on good government and economic security.

Over time, Japanese society became overtly materialistic and culturally corrupt. Oye Masahira Oye Masahira , a great Japanese Confucian scholar, confronted the nation’s aristocracy with the reality of their corruption. He called for the rejection of material excess and the adoption of a Confucian ethic that placed duty and the well-being of the Japanese nation over personal fame and fortune. Japanese leaders, including the Fujiwaras, refused to abide by his directive, and eventually the regency collapsed.


The Fujiwara regency created a model of government that brought political stability to the Japanese nation. Generation after generation of talented Fujiwara regents ruled with great skill; therefore, the impact of this famous family was felt in every corner of Japanese society.

The Fujiwara clan’s great political leadership created an environment that increased trade and industrial and agricultural productivity. This economic revival was the foundation of what would become a Japanese intellectual renaissance. This great cultural explosion manifested itself in the creation of a literary golden age that is best represented in the two famous works from the Japanese aristocracy, Sei Shōnagon’s Makura no sōshi (c. 994-c. 1001; Pillow Book, 1929; best known as The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, Pillow Book, The (Sei Shōnagon) 1967, or The Pillow Book) and Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, Tale of Genji, The (Murasaki Shikibu) 1925-1933).

Further Reading

  • De Bary, William Theodore, et al., comps. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Vol. 1. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. An excellent source of primary materials dealing with the history of Japan. Index and bibliography.
  • Holcombe, Charles. The Genesis of East Asia: 221 B.C.-A.D. 907. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. An excellent one-volume history of the early development of East Asia. Index and bibliography.
  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Vol. 1. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958. The best history of Japan during its developmental period. Index and bibliography.
  • Varley, H. Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000. An excellent overview of Japanese culture. Index and bibliography.